Encore Michigan

Powerful, imaginative “Sizwe Bansi” opens at the Matrix

Review September 25, 2016 Patrice Nolan

DETROIT, Mich.– It’s hard to imagine a more perfect play to kick-off to the Matrix Theatre Company’s new season than Sizwe Bansi is Dead. The play is ideally suited to the intimate performance space and is aligned with its ongoing mission to foster social justice.

The play is set in in the African township of New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1972. The Pass Laws have been in effect for twenty years. This system requires that every other black male in South Africa carry a government-issued pass book at all times. The pass book is a sort of internal passport that the white government uses to limit the movements (employment opportunities, education, living conditions, civil rights) of black citizens and enforce segregation.

When the play opens, we don’t know yet that Sizwe Bansi is dead, or even that he is in big trouble. In fact, we are totally swept up in the amusing stories being told by three friends – which begins with a tale about their experience working in a Ford plant on the day Henry Ford II himself came all the way from Detroit to pay a visit. This experience convinced Styles, one of the three men, to quit his job and pursue his passion for photography.

Styles has found his calling by capturing and preserving the dreams of the people who pose for his camera. He works hard to get them to smile – to reveal their better selves for the camera – and he has a wall full of photos that testify to his success. Even so, Styles has his work cut out for him when a very nervous young man enters his studio. Styles urges him to strike a heroic pose to send to his wife and, after some coaching, the attempt proves successful.

As Styles starts snapping photos, the play’s narration switches to the young man’s perspective. He is Sizwe Bansi, composing a letter to his wife that includes the new photo and an explanation of recent events. We learn that he has naively made his way to New Brighton without getting his Pass Book in order. He doesn’t have a permit to seek work. He doesn’t have a permit to seek housing. He doesn’t have a permit to hope or dream or build a better life. He is overdue to check in with the officials in his hometown and will be in trouble if he returns. He will be in bigger trouble if he stays and is caught in New Brighton. As Sizwe painfully observes to his friend Buntu, “our skin is trouble.” Meanwhile, his wife and four young children are at home, 150 miles away, with no means of support.

In this off-beat, unassuming way, Sizwe Bansi is Dead sneaks up on us, engaging us with amusing stories and investing us in the concerns of its characters. One minute we are happily strolling along, and the next, we have turned down a dark alley where we come face to face with the evils of apartheid. Forty years after this play was written, it still packs a punch. And for a generation that has come of age in the post-apartheid world, it carries a lesson worth remembering.

This beguiling Matrix production of Sizwe Bansi is Dead is directed by Oliver Pookrum with outstanding performances by all three actors: James Abbott (Sizwe Bansi), Falah Cannon (Buntu) and Jonathan Jones (Styles). Given the proximity of the actors to the audience, there is no room for error. Likewise, the audience cannot help but be engaged by this story and the imaginative, powerful way in which it unfolds across the narrow performance space. The scenic design by Gwen Lindsay underscores the paucity of even simple comforts. Imaginative sound design by director Pookrum and lighting by Neil Koivu amplify the story.

Over the course of this short (80-minute) play, we see how the various characters have learned to deal with institutionalized injustice. And although there is nothing funny about apartheid, nor can there ever be, the wit and resilience of the characters elicit many a heartfelt laugh. In a world where the black man is reduced to the Native Identification Number on his pass book, any sense of dignity, pride or personal identity must be surrendered as ransom for one’s family. There are no options. Sizwe Bansi is better off dead, but this realization leads to a surprising victory of sorts. This insightful, thought-provoking production benefits from a gratifyingly upbeat ending that rewards the audience for investing in its story. We can leave the Matrix Theatre relieved that apartheid is dead, but haunted by unanswered cries for justice.

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Week of 10/19/2020

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